South Shore Surprises

It’s been a busy couple of weeks here on Long Island. The post-migration season this year has seen a number of unexpected discoveries as non-breeders and off-course travelers wander up and down the East Coast. Most of the noteworthy action has been centered along the shoreline, and a majority of the highlights have been out of place waterbirds. Monday was the last day of normal classes until the end of the month, and I got off work a little earlier than expected. I decided to make a trip down to the barrier beaches in the hopes of following up on some reported rarities. My first stop was Jones Beach, where the Black-necked Stilts from a few weeks back had been sighted once again. I was fortunate enough to find the slender shorebirds quite quickly, though they remained distant and poorly lit in the fading light of day. After happily adding this species to my New York State list, I turned back towards the car, noting a noisy Royal Tern that flew west over the swale.

I continued on to Nickerson Beach, where rare birds continued to surprise observers at the tern colony. Apart from continuing Roseates and Royals, a new Arctic, and a few Black Terns that continued to elude me, several lucky birders had been treated to glimpses of a young Little Gull, my Nemesis Bird. It had been seen only twice, nearly a week apart, for only a few minutes at a time. The most recent encounter occurred while I was en route to Edgewood for the Whip-poor-will show. I knew that hoping for repeat performance was a bit of a pipe dream, but I was willing to put in the time for an evening vigil on the beach. Mike Z, Rob P, and several other familiar birders were on site to keep me company, and we had a great time enjoying the local birds as the sun slowly sank towards the horizon line.

Rob, the original finder, told me that the Little Gull had apparently been harassed fiercely by the resident breeders both times that it visited the beachfront nesting grounds. Anyone who’s ever been around nesting Common Terns can tell you how intense they are about defending the perimeter of their territory, including the airspace above it. “Relentless” is just about the most polite term you can apply to these plucky little seabirds when describing their anti-intruder assaults. The grating, staccato calls that they utter while diving at interlopers sound like bursts from a machine gun, and they have a nasty habit of letting loose bombs of excrement with startling precision. Most of their swooping attacks pull up just short of contact, but the brave birds will not hesitate to dole out pecks on the noggin for invaders who push their luck. I’ve lost a few drops of blood to this species during nesting surveys on Eastern Egg Rock, with some individuals even perching on my head to really drive their point home. The Nickerson birds are just as aggressive with any and all perceived threats. For several hours, we watched as Royal Terns, Ospreys, and American Oystercatchers were pursued by angry Common Terns.

As the sun slipped out of view, the birds began to settle in for the night. The Little Gull was a no-show, so we were getting ready to pack it up and head out. Suddenly, the flocks launched back into the air, twisting and weaving at low altitude and flying towards the water. The Project Puffin field biologists called this phenomenon “the dread:” a coordinated display that’s seemingly intended to disorient predators and make it difficult to isolate a singular target. We searched for the source of the commotion and found an adult Peregrine Falcon clutching a tern in its talons. Birds repeatedly dove at the raptor, and surprisingly it dropped its catch! I lost track of the would-be-prey in the swirling storm of seabirds, but the falcon wasn’t going home hungry. The Common Terns continued their chase tactics, attempting to drive the Peregrine away. On its third pass through the colony, it managed to snag a kill and hold onto it. We watched the bird fly east with its supper, disappearing into the dark as calm slowly returned to the beach. What an amazing end to the day!

Miriam had marked the stilts on her most wanted list and was already pretty bummed about missing them the first time, so she was eager to take a second swing at them when she wasn’t busy with work. We returned to the swale again on Wednesday, getting much better looks at the long-legged vagrants. While we were admiring their fancy, monochrome plumage, we spotted a White-rumped Sandpiper foraging nearby. I’d seen a few of these birds from afar on Monday, but it was nice to see one up close for the first time this year. For Miriam, it was yet another lifer. Vicious mosquitoes kept us from lingering too long at the site, but we went home satisfied with our encounter.

The weather was a bit iffy on Saturday, but we still jumped at the opportunity to get out and do some exploring. I introduced Miriam to the nesting Purple Martins at the marina adjacent to the Lido Beach Passive Nature Area. We also spotted several families of Canada Geese, including an individual marked with a neck collar. I reported the bird to the relevant authorities with the necessary details. It’s always cool to see a banded individual in the wild!

We walked the trails that led out into the marsh, taking note of a robin carrying food and a fledgling Red-winged Blackbird along the way. There were plenty of Willets hanging out at close range, and egrets and night-herons could be seen foraging further out in the grassy expanse. The foggy conditions made photography a bit difficult, but sometimes its enough just to see the birds well.

After scanning the saltmarshes from the observation deck, we started back towards the parking lot. Ospreys were seen making use of the man-made structures supplied for them, resting on perches and nesting platforms as they surveyed the scene. Our final surprise of the morning was a muskrat foraging in the grass not far from our car. It quickly scurried into the brush as we approached, showing off its flattened tail as it bounced away to safety. I brought Miriam home and headed back to Lynbrook to get ready for the day’s obligations.

I was at a family barbecue later that afternoon, beginning to plan my exit when I got a exciting report. A Brown Booby had been discovered at Nickerson Beach by Joshua Malbin, Shai, and Pat L, continuing the trend of surprising seabirds at this magic colony. I called up Miriam, inadvertently waking her from a nap, to deliver the news. When she heard the latest update from the field, she sprang awake and began getting her gear together. She was already eagerly waiting outside the house by the time I reached her, and we rushed down to the coast yet again. Upon arrival, we found that the fog had thickened and now shrouded the entirety of the beach. Misinterpreting the email in my haste, I led the charge down to the eastern tern colony, finding no birders and no booby. I sent out a text update, and the mist began to retreat slightly. I was surprised when it revealed a huge congregation in the distance, optics trained on the western colony. My phone started to blow up with messages, calls, and voicemails as the good birders of Long Island reached out to correct my mistake. Miriam and I hastened our pace, arriving to find the bird still present on her perch atop a Piping Plover exclosure.

This was not my first booby in New York, but the bird was undoubtedly a long way from her home in the Caribbean. Brown Boobies have a propensity to wander, though the voyages are not always easy for them. This adult female had her head tucked behind a wing, and the ever-obnoxious Common Terns were divebombing her repeatedly as she tried to catch some rest. The feathers of her upperparts had already been fouled by their excretory assault…hardly a warm welcome for this exhausted, lost traveler. We watched the bird for some times and exchanged congratulations, hugs, and laughs with the other assembled birders. Miriam and I did a stint in the car when the rain started to pick up, but we walked back down to the nesting grounds as the sun was about to set. We spied the first baby plovers of the year, as well as plenty of young oystercatchers. An adult Black Tern flew overhead, calling loudly before settling in with the loafing flock for a bit. As we prepared to leave the beach, I passed my binoculars to Miriam and suggested that perhaps the booby would lift her head “for the last look.” Against all odds, she did! We got to see the her distinctive bare face and pointed bill as she scanned her surroundings one last time for the day. When she went back to sleep, we went back to the vehicle.

The morning brought unfortunate, if unsurprising, news. After taking a dawn flight along the shoreline, the female Brown Booby collapsed on her perch early in the day and expired. Her remains were collected as a specimen for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and it may be possible to determine if it was illness, starvation, or exhaustion that brought her tale to this sad end. Obviously death is a fact of life, and it is often difficult for these shockingly lost rarities to survive in strange lands. All the same, I’ll raise a glass to this particular bird, whose improbable path crossed mine and linked the narratives of our lives for this short period of time. I think many of the birders who got to meet her will feel similarly: impressed by her journey, saddened by her passing, relieved that her final resting place will be an institution of science, and honored to have witnessed her alive in nature during the final chapter of her story.

Year List Update, June 18 – 308 Species (+ White-rumped Sandpiper, Purple Martin, Black Tern)

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Adventures at the End

I love when plans for an unexpected journey come together on the spur of a moment. With beautiful weather forecast for Saturday, Miriam suggested that we take her Jeep out to Montauk and do some exploration. Of the friends asked on short notice, only Josh was able to join us, but we ended up taking Gracie, Miriam’s pit bull, along for the ride. The drive out was fantastic, with the top down the breeze and the bright sun felt divine. We stopped for lunch at Lunch, also known as the Lobster Roll, in Napeague before continuing onward to Shadmoor State Park. This site is best known for its massive World War II-era bunkers, looming imposingly atop towering bluffs that look out over the sea. These sandy structures are also home to colonies of Bank Swallows that have excavated nests in the sheer faces of the cliffs. We watched the swallows as they wheeled about, swooping low over the path and cruising along the land’s edge.

We stared down from our lofty perch at the waves crashing 100 feet below. There were lots of folks walking along the beach, and several surfers were hanging around in the water. I was surprised to see a large flock of nearly 200 Black Scoters foraging among the breakers. These sea ducks, along with their close cousins, are superabundant off the coast of Montauk during the winter. Although small numbers often linger, this kind of congregation is a rare sight in summer.

When we finished our hike at Shadmoor, we turned back west and headed for Hither Hills State Park. We took one of the access roads through the woods to get to the beach, bouncing over roots and ruts along the way. Josh remarked that riding in the Jeep over rough terrain with dense greenery all around us reminded him of Jurassic Park. Not a minute later, a dinosaurian silhouette dashed across the road in front of us. Had someone left the raptor paddock open? We slowed to a crawl and crept up on the bush where the shadow had disappeared, coming face to face with a female Wild Turkey. The beefy bird slowly strode off into the forest, providing great views as she strutted through the foliage. We encountered a Red Fox a bit further down the path, and there were plenty of smaller birds singing near the lot at the terminus of the road.

We spent nearly two hours lounging on the shores of Long Island Sound, soaking up sun and basking in the breeze. While we were relaxing on the sand, we checked ourselves for unwanted passengers. Miriam and I found a few ticks crawling on our clothes, but Josh and Gracie both had multiple individuals latched onto their bodies. Once the bloodthirsty arachnids were removed, we were able to fully enjoy the lazy afternoon by the water. A showy male mockingbird and a few performing Prairie Warblers caused us to pause at the lot before we got back in the vehicle. After snapping a few pictures, we drove back out the way we came.

We arrived at Big Reed Pond as the shadows were beginning to grow longer. The exhaustion of a full day in the sunlight was starting to get to me, but I knew that this was a great area to explore for wildlife. I got a bit turned around on the trails since we didn’t enter the way I usually come in during the Christmas Bird Count. Eventually, however, we came around a bend to find the swaying reeds that encircle the pond. I was pretty spaced out, enjoying the golden glow of evening and listening intently to birdsong as we walked along.

The peace was suddenly broken by a sharp shriek and a burst of movement as a something went scrambling from the side of the trail into the brush. “What the hell is that? A chicken?” asked Josh. “Do they have chickens out here? Look at that thing!” The small fowl had quickly scurried into thick cover, but it remained barely visible as it paced back and forth in the undergrowth, calling loudly. I strained to make out the details, confirming that it had rusty plumage, black-and-white stripes on the flanks, a short, cocked tail, and a long, reddish bill. I was hoping to come across some Virginia Rails at this location, but I was not expecting to stumble upon one at close range like this. The bird continued walking around and vocalizing, staying in the same general area. I suspect that it had a nest or young close by, so I led the others along and left it in peace. We found a pair of Tree Swallows nesting at a duck blind further down the trail, reveling in amazing views in the late afternoon light. We heard and saw the rail yet again, still skulking beyond the edge of the path, as we passed by en route to the Jeep.

It’s only fitting to spend the end of the day at the End of the Island. After a quick dinner, we returned to the Point to watch the sun go down. The colorful skies over the Sound did not disappoint. It was a great final act for our adventure, and we listened to the final performances of the nearby songbirds as the day came to a close. Josh was kind enough to take the wheel, and I for one was slipping in and out of consciousness the whole way back west.

On the journey home, I convinced the crew to stop in Quogue and listen for singing nightjars. Whip-poor-wills and Chuck-will’s-widows are known to inhabit the wooded areas in this neighborhood, and it is possible to hear both species from the same stretch of road if you’re lucky. Unfortunately, I had no such luck. Perhaps we had arrived too late after sunset, maybe the birds were busy foraging or singing deeper in the forest. At any rate, it was a swing and a miss. It was hard to complain about this strikeout at the end of a fun, full day, but I still wanted to settle the score.

After a sweltering, uneventful Sunday, I drove out to Edgewood Oak Brush Plains Preserve just before dusk. I had only visited this park once before, but I had received intel that it was a prime spot for listen for Whip-poor-wills. I’d already seen and heard Chucks earlier in the year, and I really wasn’t looking to drive all the way back to Quogue just to take a chance at hearing them simultaneously again. The Whips would have to do, assuming I was lucky enough to find them. I maintained a brisk pace as I walked out to the spot where I’d seen the Red Crossbills back in March. A passing biker stopped to chat with me as I waited for the sun to set, sharing fun facts and short stories about the property and his experiences over the years. He didn’t continue along until the sky had begun to darken, but after he said farewell I noted a Whip-poor-will singing close by.

 Music of the Night

The Eastern Whip-poor-will is named for its iconic song, a rolling, repetitive chant that is frequently heard on summer evenings in the woods. Their whistled cries have featured prominently in literature and music, variously described as melancholy, manic, eerie, irritating, or soothing. It’s hard to believe that all these folks are listening to the same bird, but there’s no denying that it’s an evocative sound. Personally, I love the lilting lullaby delivered by Antrostomus vociferus. I tallied half a dozen individuals in the preserve that night, singing with gusto and pausing only to nab flying insects or switch perches. I stood among the shadowed trees, enjoying the chorus of Whip-poor-wills and watching fireflies twinkle across the landscape. The air was still, the sky was clear, and the temperature was ideal. In short, it was a perfect night to kick off the summer season.

Year List Update, June 11 – 305 Species (+ Bank Swallow, Virginia Rail, Eastern Whip-poor-will)

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Tern It Up

As the school year draws to a close and the official beginning of summer approaches, my thoughts turn to terns. These elegant little seabirds nest in large numbers along the south shore of Long Island, and early June is the prime time to visit their bustling breeding colonies. Most of the birds in these crowded congregations are Common Terns, joined by groups of Black Skimmers and a few Least Terns. When the parents fly out to sea forage en masse, they attract the attention of migrating individuals that are passing by offshore. These birds may follow the feeding flocks back to the beach, where they end up loafing around among the locals.

The closest, most accessible, most reliable colony in my area is at Nickerson Beach. As long as you arrive before 10 or after 4, you can avoid the exorbitant entry charge and check out the action down on the coast. During my first year back home after college, Nickerson was on fire. I saw 8 different species of terns in one day standing post. 2016 was a bit less exciting, but you can always count on this site to serve up something worthwhile. This year, the rarity reports started flooding in with the force of a burst dam. I headed down the beach on Wednesday afternoon, but I failed to connect with most of the anticipated targets. A flyby pair of Gull-billed Terns and a handful of Roseate Terns relaxing on the sand were welcome observations, but the Arctic, Sandwich, Royal, and Black Terns seen previously didn’t turn up. Rob P even discovered a young Little Gull, my number one Nemesis Bird, which also failed to return. I left the beach as sunset, finding consolation in dinner from Jordan’s Lobster Farms.

Thursday found me back at the beach yet again. I put in about an hour of search time, but failed to locate anything particularly noteworthy. Plovers, Willets, and large flocks of gulls kept me amused as I sifted through hundreds of skimmers and terns.

Mike Z refound the Arctic Tern bright and early on Friday morning, so I headed straight to Nickerson after quitting time. I coordinated with Brendan to see if he cared to join me in my hunt, and he ended up reaching the site before I did. No one had seen the tern since Mike watched it fly away, but I still felt good about the odds of finding it. I set up my scope at the edge of the eastern colony, began sweeping through the birds, and quickly picked up a subtly different individual. Tiny, short legs resulted in a slope-backed stance, and the overall coloration was grayer than the surrounding Common Terns. The head was rounder, the bill was shorter and darker red. A more extensive black cap ended closer to the gape, highlighted by a thin stripe of white that set the gray body plumage apart. The tail streamers were marginally longer, extending beyond the tips of the folded wings. Bingo.

Arctic Terns are the world champions of migration. No other living creature known to man travels so far over the course of a single year. Breeding in the northern limits of the planet and wintering in the Antarctic, this species chases summer back and forth across the globe. The record was recently set by an individual that flew 59,650 miles round trip. This incredible journey results in the Arctic Tern seeing more daylight annually than any other organism. I’m a lifelong fan of these winged wanderers, and I felt privileged to live in their world, however briefly, during my summer on the Project Puffin team. Seeing one of these birds away from its nesting grounds is a rare treat. It’s amazing that this tern’s globetrotting adventure brought it so close to my home.

I put out a report that I had relocated the Arctic, and birders rushed to the scene. Brendan, Doug F, Rob P, Kevin, Stefan, and Arie were among those who were happy to find the bird still present when they arrived. I stayed put to keep tabs on the tern, watching for it whenever the flock took flight and taking pains to track where it perched. We were also treated to a trio of Royal Terns that noisily flew west down the beach, and there were plenty of gulls and shorebirds present for photo opps.

I returned home just before sunset, ready to relax after a long week of work and bird chasing. An evening spent in the company of an Arctic Tern is lovely by default, and it was only improved by the air of camaraderie surrounding the scene of the observation. Quite frankly, it was birding at its best: old friends and new faces coming and going, sharing the challenge of identifying and monitoring a high-quality bird, swapping stories and trading wisdom. There’s nothing else quite like it!

Year List Update, June 9 – 302 Species (+ Roseate Tern, Arctic Tern)

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The Joys of June

We’re approaching the halfway point of 2017, which means that spring migration is behind us and the end of the school year is drawing near. In a few short weeks, I’ll be finished with teaching for the season. If all goes well, I’ll be done with my grad school coursework and strolling away with a master’s in education. There’s a lot of work to do before summer break can officially begin, but I’ve still found free time to get outdoors and explore.

June is a great time to get up close and personal with birds that breed locally. I brought Miriam to Jamaica Bay over the weekend in the hopes of seeing the resident Barn Owl family at Big John’s Pond. Unfortunately, the raptors were not visible when we arrived, most likely due to the chilly, wet conditions early in the morning. There were a few egrets and night-herons around to keep us company, and we saw and heard plenty of songbirds flitting through the foliage.

We continued onward to the East Pond, and I picked out an adult Bald Eagle perched on North Island at the far end of the water feature. Even though it was essentially a white dot on top of a dark dot at that distance, we were still happy to spot one of these majestic predators. As we walked back the way we came, I heard a strange sound coming from the phragmites near the boardwalk to Big John’s. It was a muffled, low “coocoocoo,” a bit like someone knocking on a hollow piece of wood. I immediately froze in place, and Miriam asked me what was making the mysterious noise. Knowing that there were only two possibilities and being rather confident which it was due to location and overall quality, I retreated a short distance down the trail and quietly played 2 birdsongs into my ear to check my memory. Nope, definitely not a sneaky Black-billed Cuckoo, hiding somewhere near the reeds. The voice didn’t sound high or whistly enough. The recordings confirmed my initial hunch: the source of the cooing was a male Least Bittern.

This was an especially exciting find. I’m a huge fan of these half pint herons, and I’d never before encountered one in New York. This was also my 300th bird for the year, joining Dovekie and Cape May Warbler as my 2017 century markers. I couldn’t see the tiny bird in the dense vegetation, but Miriam managed to get a quiet recording of its soft singing. This video shows a clearer view of what was happening deep in the phrag while we listened and strained to get a visual. We eventually moved on, leaving the bittern in peace and reporting its presence to the listserv with a reminder not to harass this rare potential breeder. Our final stop for Saturday morning was Plumb Beach, where we missed Nelson’s Sparrows but heard plenty of Clapper Rails. I even briefly saw one strutting across a mudflat before ducking into cover.

Sunday was a lazy day, so I slept in and took the time to relax. I headed down to Cow Meadow Park in the late afternoon, where I found the continuing Cattle Egret but no sign of our elusive White-faced Ibis. There was a lot of activity around the pond even as light rain began to fall. Canada Geese and Mallards already have new babies running around, and there were multiple displaying Boat-tailed Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds present.

The herons and egrets that roost at Cow Meadow are super cooperative and often pose nicely for photographs. The long-necked, leggy waders are interesting and dynamic subjects, changing their appearance drastically whenever they stretch or scrunch. I was able to both Yellow-crowned and Black-crowned Night-Herons, Great and Snowy Egrets, and a surprise Tricolored Heron resting along the water’s edge.

A few Green Herons were moving around the area, shrieking loudly as they flew between perches. One pair was being extra affectionate, hanging out on the same branch and surveying the park together. The male broke off a twig and offered it to his mate, a gift to be used as nesting material. She nibbled at the present graciously, but left it in his bill as she took off, seemingly leaving him to carry it back home.

I continued onwards to Robert Moses State Park. With wind speed increasing as stormy conditions blew in from the southeast, I planned to do a seawatch on the offchance that any interesting pelagic species got pushed close to shore. The viewing conditions were fantastic, with unlimited visibility, but unfortunately the gusts just weren’t strong enough to produce a seabird show. I noted a young gannet when I first set my scope up under the overhanging roof, and at one point a distant scoter flew by. Apart from that, it was the usual suspects: cormorants, Ospreys, and the expected gull species. To be honest, most of the excitement was on the shore. There were a handful of Lesser Black-backed Gulls loafing at the parking lot, and I was entertained blackbirds foraging along the trash, gulls cracking crabs on the pavement, and Barn Swallows collecting nesting material. After nearly 3 full hours standing post, I called it quits. Despite the lack of dramatic sightings, I was still glad that I made the effort. Trying is half the fun!

Something compelled me to drive a little further down the road as I approached the roundabout at the park exit. I went a little further east, heading towards the lighthouse and scanning the roadside. I passed a couple of deer, some rabbits, and a few families of birds before making a u-turn. As I began driving westward again, I noticed a mass of ginger fur laying in the grass along the shoulder. A young Red Fox! I quietly eased over to the edge of the asphalt and reached for my camera. The adorable little canine was contentedly noshing on some sort of morsel, posing beautifully for a photo shoot. After a few minutes, the kit rose to its feet and trotted away, looking back at me as it moved on. What a way to end the day!

Year List Update, June 4 300 Species (+ Least Bittern)

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Eye-to-Ibis

Bird every bird. Bird every bird. Bird every goddamned bird!

This short phrase is a strange one at first glance. A single word takes up two-thirds of the sentence, acting as both the verb and the direct object. “Bird every bird” is an oft-repeated birder mantra, and a sound piece of advice. Rephrased, “you should properly exercise intentional, active birding practices on every bird you see.” When you’re a birder, you see a lot of birds. It’s easy to get desensitized to the common and familiar species, passing over the chickadees and crows. However, rare birds can turn up in any place at any time. Carefully sifting through hordes of geese and terns can prove very rewarding, and truly incredible finds can sneak up on you when you least expect it. On the other hand, letting your guard down or phoning it in when you’re out in the field can result in quality surprises slipping past you.

With the school year winding down, I was looking forward to celebrating my first Tuesday night in many months without any grad school class to worry about. I had plans to hit up bar trivia with my friends, but I wanted to get some fresh air first. There had been some rarity reports from along the South Shore throughout the day, so Miriam picked me up from the train station and we headed out to try our luck. Our first stop was Jones Beach, where a pair of Black-necked Stilts has been intermittently seen the past few days. I found plenty of eager explorers on site, but there was no sign of the leggy shorebirds. Word on the street was that someone had gotten a little too close for comfort trying to get a photo. The stilts had not been seen since they took off.

We decided to spend some time checking the swale, enjoying the local birds that were hanging around. Least Terns have resumed nesting in the roped off section near the parking lot, ferrying gifts of fish to their mates and squeaking loudly as they hover over the heads of passersby. They’re just as vocal about defending their territory as their larger cousins are, but their efforts are less aggressive and more adorable.

I only had my binoculars and Miriam only had her camera, but she was happy snapping pictures of Tree Swallows, Ospreys, and various non-stilt shorebirds as we waited by the water. Brendan, just back from the Bahamas, and Brent, still wearing work clothes, also showed up on the scene. We talked about our options and decided to use our limited time elsewhere. Each of us hopped into our vehicles and headed off towards Cow Meadow Park in Freeport, where a Cattle Egret had been reported foraging on the lawn.

Our fortunes turned around at Cow Meadow. We were able to locate the egret on the far side of the pond, and Miriam enjoyed the antics of this latest lifer. Tree and Barn Swallows circled around us at close range, snagging insects out of the air and daring us to try photographing them. There were also plenty of confiding wading birds besides our intended target, including roosting Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, a few Great Egrets, and a surprisingly cooperative Green Heron. The tiny ardeid flew in close to us and began showing off on the low branches, stretching out its impressive neck to reach the water’s surface from above.

I said farewell to my friends and returned to the car, leaving with just enough time to make it to trivia on schedule. I picked up Miriam’s cameras and clicked through the images she had just captured. I paused on a photo of two ibis that had been perched by the pool when we arrived. The expected species on the East Coast is the Glossy Ibis, and they are quite common in the coastal saltmarshes of Long Island. Ordinarily, I pay special attention to these birds, checking them closely to confirm their identity. The Glossy’s western cousin, the White-faced Ibis, is an infrequent vagrant to our shores, and the two species look remarkably similar. After missing out on the Black-necked Stilts at the end of a long day, I was anxious to locate the Cattle Egret and score a win. In my haste, I passed over an even grander prize when I failed to look closely at the ibis. In fairness, I had inspected the face of one bird, but the second was preening and turned away at the time. I should’ve waited for it to lift its head! Miriam’s photos clearly showed that one of the dark feathered birds had a distinct border of white plumage around its bright red face. The legs and iris of the ibis were also warmly colored, contrasting with the cooler hues of its glossier companion.

Drat. I felt pretty stupid for failing to recognize this individual due to my own carelessness, but the worst part was that no one besides the two of us got to see it. The birds had taken flight and circled the park shortly after we began exploring the area, and they had disappeared in an unseen direction by the time Brendan and Brent arrived. If I’d been aware enough to catch the rarity in the moment, I could have at least watched where it was headed so others would know where to begin searching.

On the other hand, I realize couldn’t have really stopped the bird from leaving. I got a year bird and a county bird out of the encounter, and Miriam enjoyed both the photo shoot with an unexpected lifer and the firsthand revelation that rarities really can pop up any time. These kind of delayed, after-the-fact IDs have become more common in the age of digital photography, and it’s kind of fascinating that technology has afforded us this retroactive superpower. There’s no denying, though, that it’s a happier ending when the bird is still around after the replay reveals the truth. Hopefully someone else is able to refind the ibis and redeem my foolishness. Some lessons have to be learned, and relearned, the hard way.

Bird every bird!

Year List Update, May 30 – 299 Species (+ White-faced Ibis)

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Henslow Ride

It’s not easy to get off Long Island in a timely fashion. Fighting traffic through New York City is almost always a hassle no matter which direction you go. On Sunday, May 28, 2017, I had the quickest, most painless drive to the mainland of my entire life. I pulled out of my driveway in Lynbrook at 6:31 in the morning, and even though I stopped for gas I was over the George Washington Bridge at 7:01. Moving fast on the Cross Bronx Expressway felt so nice! Continuing north, I breezed through New Jersey and back into New York at a blistering pace. At 8:06 AM, I arrived at Shawangunk Grasslands National Wildlife Refuge, roughly 100 miles from home. I was flying high on the winds of fortune, and the good times just kept on rolling from there.

Shawangunk is a beautiful grassland ecosystem, a landscape that has become increasingly rare in the Empire State. Open floodplains used to be found throughout this region, but agriculture and development have resulted in a great reduction of available habitat. Even though the refuge was originally created artificially as an airbase, it is now one of the few remaining wild grasslands in the Hudson Valley. It is intentionally managed to prevent natural succession from reverting the community to the forested swamp that was historically found at this site. I have visited this preserve on several occasions, and I am always impressed by the array of species that call Shawangunk home. As soon as I stepped out of my car, I could hear the jangling, energetic songs of Bobolinks blowing across the field on the breeze. The trilling voices of Grasshopper Sparrows and the flute-like notes of Eastern Meadowlarks also joined the symphony of the soundscape.

I made my way out the trail towards a large group of birders near one of the observation blinds. As I approached, a new sound reached my ears. It was a short, buzzy, two-note vocalization, sounding something like a grasshopper’s hiccup. Roger Tory Peterson dubbed this “one of the poorest vocal efforts of any bird,” and some of my Cornell friends remember the simple phrase with the mnemonic “T-Swift.” It was the song of the Henslow’s Sparrow, a bird which I had never encountered before. This species is uncommon and declining, largely thanks to its dependency on weedy grasslands with plenty of shrubbery for nesting. Manicured agriculture fields and incipient woodlands simply won’t do for the Henslow’s, and as a result it has all but disappeared from most of New York along with its vanishing habitat. In addition to being rare, this sparrow is notoriously skulky and inconspicuous for most of the year. Singing males defending territory are the exception to the rule, and this individual had been incredibly cooperative since its discovery a few days prior. Its appearance at Shawangunk is a promising sign, since it suggests that the management efforts to maintain viable grassland are working. I was impressed by this tiny songster, who put a lot of heart into belting out his insect-like tune from atop the swaying stems.

Further down the path, there was smaller assemblage of nature enthusiasts observing another bird of interest. A male Dickcissel has taken up residence at Shawangunk, and the Henslow’s Sparrow was actually discovered by folks searching for this rarity in our region. Although this species nests in the heartland of America, off-track migrants are regularly observed along the East Coast during fall migration. I’ve seen my share of wayward travelers and even found them on my own before, but its spiffy breeding plumage and distinctive song were new to me. Seeing and hearing these two unusual birds in such close proximity to another was a real treat, and they almost seemed to be showing off and competing for attention.

While hanging out with the Dickcissel crowd, I turned my binoculars on an American Kestrel that was circling a distant tree. As I watched the falcon, a loud, bubbling whistle cut through the chorus of grassland birds. The unearthly quality of this strange song was unmistakable, and I pivoted to look for the singer as the music floated down from the sky. By the time I turned, the singer was nowhere to be seen, but a nearby birder said they’d seen a distant shorebird drop from the air and land among the tall grass. Shawangunk is a known breeding site for the unusual Upland Sandpiper, my old nemesis and the source of the weird whistling. I’d come looking for these miniature curlews in this area before finally seeing my lifer on Long Island last year, since it is one of the few remaining strongholds where they can be reliably encountered in the southern portion of the state. It was unfortunate that I didn’t get a visual of the bird’s flight display, but hearing that crazy performance was a sort of “audio lifer” experience.

It was hard to pry myself away from the grasslands when there were so many great birds to be seen and heard. I’m sure that if I’d stayed longer I would’ve found plenty more excitement with my fellow explorers. Alas, I had other plans for the morning and wanted to be back home by dinnertime. I bid farewell to those who I knew and began trudging back to the parking lot. A Killdeer flew overhead as warblers and flycatchers sang from the edge of the property near the path. The male Bobolinks continued to put on a show as I made my way out of the refuge, and one was kind enough to pose alongside the trail for a brief photo shoot. That was an exceedingly pleasant parting gift!

I turned my vehicle south once again, making a slight detour just before reaching the Jersey border. Visiting Sterling Forest State Park has become something of an annual tradition, and I decided to roll my rarity chase in with my yearly check-in at Ironwood Drive. Golden-winged Warbler songs reached my ears as soon as I stepped out of the car, but I still took pains to get a visual on the origin of each voice. With so many Blue-wings and hybrids here, you never know who might be responsible for a vocalization, no matter how promising it sounds. I connected with a few additional species that are expected in this forest edge habitat, including Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Indigo Bunting, and Broad-winged Hawk. Southerly specialties like Hooded and Cerulean Warblers joined Louisiana Waterthrushes and Yellow-throated Vireos in filling the hills with music. I even heard a Yellow-breasted Chat hooting and chuckling in the bushes along the trail. It was almost like I was back in West Virginia! Unfortunately, I also picked up a couple of ticks as I explored the power line cut, so I took care to check myself every time I passed through the foliage.

A handful each of Blue-winged, Golden-winged, and hybrid “Brewster’s” Warblers showed themselves as they sang in the treetops. These males were hard at work defending territory and attracting mates, though the mixed-parentage individuals showed that at least some of the females have a weakness for a foreign accent.

Last spring, my efforts to satisfactorily photograph Golden-winged Warblers ended in failure. These fidgety, flitting songbirds are difficult picture subjects, and the shadowy lighting in this leafy, sun-dappled habitat makes quality camera work a challenge. Today, I was treated to several male Goldens who were content to deliver their performances from high perches without zipping around from branch to branch. Although I found myself wishing for a longer lens, a tripod, and a better eye for composition, I was still pleased with the opportunity to take identifiable pics of the handsome little birds.

Lots of other birders were out and about on the trails at Ironwood, and I made sure to point them in the direction of interesting and unusual species. After letting visiting nature walkers know about the chat, the hybrids, and the cooperative Golden-wings, I took my leave of Sterling Forest and began the journey south once more. My late May trips to the near upstate are usually one of the high points of my birding year, and this outing was no exception. The Appalachian forest and grassland specialties that I found really brightened up my weekend, and the charming little Henslow’s Sparrow was a long-awaited addition to my life list. Memorial Day Weekend did not disappoint!

Year List Update, May 28 – 298 Species (+ Bobolink, Henslow’s Sparrow, Dickcissel, Upland Sandpiper, Golden-winged Warbler, Broad-winged Hawk)

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The Nighthawk Cometh

I like to keep tabs on my many friends scattered about the planet. A number of my scientist buddies from college lead interesting lives full of research and adventure, so I get to live vicariously through their stories even when I’m stuck at home. One of my closest friends from Cornell, geographically and in terms of connection, is Ben Barkley of New Jersey. Ben has been working as a naturalist at Lord Stirling Park near his home in Somerset County, NJ. We get to touch base in the City with regularity, and he always makes a pitch for me to come and visit his “office.” On Friday, I was scrolling through my newsfeed and noticed that Ben had posted a photo of a brown bird resting on the ground alongside a trail. Some sort of nightjar, maybe a Chuck-will’s-widow? I looked closer and saw that it was actually a nighthawk, presumably a Common. Glancing at the comments, it was apparent that another birder, Erik Enbody, was curious about the ID of this individual. Ben returned to check on the visitor, taking photos from other angles and confirming field marks. Buffy spotting on the wings, more even, brownish coloration overall….this was a Lesser Nighthawk! The northern limit of this bird’s range is in the desert southwest, and this discovery was only the 2nd state record. I was very impressed with Ben’s find, and decided that this was as good an excuse as any to finally check out the park where he works.

After a text from Ben on Saturday morning letting us know that the nighthawk was still present, Miriam and I set out for New Jersey. We fortunately didn’t have to contend with too much traffic, and Ben was waiting for us at the parking lot when we arrived. We got a little bit of backstory about the long distance traveler, who was evidently discovered a few miles away on May 14 and taken into rehab at the Raptor Trust. The bird was thin but otherwise unharmed, and after a week of feeding and test flying she was set free on May 21. Now, nearly a week later, the bird was resting and behaving normally at Lord Stirling, about a mile from her release site. As a natural wild vagrant who had resumed normal activity after its stint in human care, this individual was acceptable as a legitimate, countable record. A short distance down the trail, we found a ring of traffic cones and a sleepy nighthawk resting near a trailside kiosk.

We got to spend some quality time with the little wanderer, watching as she surveyed the scene. As the sun rose higher, the nighthawk made an effort to remain in the shade of a small plant nearby. Several times, she took adorable shuffling steps to keep herself out of the direct light. It was great to share this remarkable encounter with Ben, catching up and trading jokes. Miriam and Ben have both heard a lot about each other, so this meeting was long overdue. After we’d had our fill of the Lesser Nighthawk, Ben led us to the nature center to show off his workplace. We were introduced to several critters behind the scenes, including a few vinegaroons and a Crested Gecko which we got to feed. We were encouraged to check out the basement exhibits, and we found a wonderland of displays and interpretive signs. We even got to become beavers! That’s the dream!

I was impressed when Ben produced a map of the trails through the park. There was an extensive network of paths through some diverse and promising habitat. He highlighted a few particular spots of interest and sent the two of us out to explore. Miriam got to experience some previously glimpsed birds up close and personal, as well as adding some new species to her growing life list. Some of the pictures she took were even better than mine! Cedar Waxwings were courting and canoodling at close range, a vast improvement on the fast flyovers that constituted her first sighting. Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Scarlet Tanager, Canada Warbler, and Blue-winged Warbler were among the highlights encountered out in the woods. I also heard and glimpsed a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher out at the preserve’s boundary, an overdue year bird.

Ben had given us a heads up about some mating Northern Water Snakes which were observed at the lily pond boardwalk, one large female wrapped up in several eager suitors. We found the tangled reptiles lounging in the warm sunlight together, and the nearby views were peacefully beautiful. From the eastern observation tower, we could see across the border of the property and into the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge. We could hear some Marsh Wrens singing from the wet grasses beyond the river, where several kayakers paddling past good-naturedly posed for photographs.

When we returned to the nature center, we said farewell to Ben and got some advice on where to explore next. Ben pointed us towards a specific part of the Great Swamp which he stated is a often good spot to look for Bald Eagles. It was only a short drive down the road from Lord Stirling Park, and we spied a charming little Red Fox trotting along the shoulder towards us, Miriam’s first ever. We parked at the Swamp and started down the trail towards the Friend’s Blind. I noticed a a quiet assemblage of visitors standing on the boardwalk, fixated on something near the forest’s edge. Miriam and I rounded the bend in the trail and saw a large brown bird perched on a low branch, staring intently at the water. When the bird’s face came into view, we found ourselves looking into the deep, dark eyes of a Barred Owl. I quickly and quietly tried to set up my scope, and the raptor plunged into the flooded grass while I was fussing with my gear! ARGH! Fortunately, Miriam had her camera ready. She managed a series of action shots as the owl took off with its prey firmly grasped in its beak: a crayfish! It retreated to the trees to devour the crustacean in relative privacy. Such a great encounter!

The blind itself proved to be a nice spot for observing wildlife. We didn’t get to see any eagles on this outing, but there were lots of other birds flitting around. Kingbirds, blackbirds, and sparrows were moving through the swaying grasses just outside the structure. A few drops of rain started to fall as dark clouds rolled in, so we said goodbye to the Great Swamp and turned the vehicle back towards New York.

The expedition to see the Lesser Nighthawk was a great adventure and an awesome opportunity to catch up with old Ben. I’m happy for his awesome discovery, and even more happy that Miriam and I got to enjoy it firsthand. The best part? There were still two days left to enjoy in Memorial Day Weekend! More good times await!

Year List Update, May 27  – 298 Species (+ Lesser Nighthawk, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher)

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